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Dr. J. on Running

Spring Training

Return to the Hills

Published April 26, 1999 in The Post-Standard.

By Dr Kamal Jabbour, Contributing Writer

Ice and snow on the roads throughout winter take away the pleasure of running up and down hills, so many runners hibernate on a diet of slow, flat miles and occasional track workouts.

Spring signals warmer weather and longer days, and the return of northern runners to the hills.

The ugly sibling of speed workouts, hill running is a necessary evil for serious racers and weekend warriors alike. The benefits of running uphill include improving running form, building stamina, strengthening front leg muscles and preventing injury.

Arthur Lydiard, the renowned New Zealand coach, considers hill running the most beneficial form of resistance training.

A typical athlete who runs six times per week, alternating hard and easy days, may run hills once a week, and use the remaining two hard days for a speed workout and a long run. Former U.S. Olympian Jeff Galloway recommends building a mileage base with several weeks of easy running, where the weekly hill run is the only hard workout.

Running hills may take on different forms depending on the desired outcome. Sprinters benefit most by running up and walking down steep, short hills to develop strength and anaerobic speed. Distance runners prefer longer, gradual hills that build endurance and aerobic capacity. Long-distance runs incorporating rolling hills take away the monotony of flat terrain and the repetitiveness of the stress on the joints and muscles.

Road racers often plan their strategic moves around the hills on a given course. At every level of competition, nothing scatters a pack of runners like a hill. Some runners attack the hill to gain an edge, while others conserve energy going up the hill and explode over the crest for a decisive edge. Conventional wisdom suggests running the hills at constant effort, rather than constant speed.

Sebastian Coe, the 1980 and '84 Olympic gold medalist and world record holder at 800 and 1,500 meters, and arguably the best middle distance runner ever, had a love-hate relationship with hills. Since all tracks are flat, Coe avoided downhill running at all cost. However, his training included a weekly uphill 10-mile run in 60 minutes. His father and coach, Peter Coe, followed him by car, and gave him a ride back.

Coe believes downhill running is dangerous to the knees, subjecting the joint to unnatural and conflicting stresses. In fact, knee injuries are the most common injuries among runners, attributed in part to muscle imbalance. When we run forward, our back muscles perform most of the work, strengthening our calves and hamstrings at the expense of our quadriceps.

Running uphill strengthens the quadriceps, restoring some of the muscle imbalance and protecting the knee from injury. In today's age of mechanization, treadmills and stair-climbers provide uphill-only workouts to suit every need. Similarly, riding a bicycle provides a similar non-impact benefit.

Running hills must be avoided when recovering from certain injuries. While running uphill normally stretches and strengthens the Achilles' tendons, it can aggravate an injury in that area and lead to serious complications. Similarly, running uphill can be detrimental to some lower foot injuries.

So, if your summer racing calendar includes a few races listed as tough and hilly, or simply rolling hills, now is the time to find a good set of hills and start your training.

Kamal Jabbour runs and writes on the hills of Pompey, New York. His RUNNING Column appears in The Post-Standard on Mondays. He maintains The Syracuse Running Page and receives email at jabbour@syr.edu.


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